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Moving Wilde out of his comfort zone

'A Good Woman' is based on a classic work by the playwright, but its setting in Italy during the 1930s undercuts it.

February 03, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Oscar, is that you? And is that still your play?

Though we're not officially informed until the final credits roll, Oscar Wilde's classic "Lady Windermere's Fan" is the basis of "A Good Woman," starring Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson and Tom Wilkinson. The film is well intentioned and mildly diverting, but in attempting to modernize its story it has lost many of the things that make the original so memorable and not gained much in return.

The Wilde play, source of such classic witticisms as "I can resist everything except temptation," is set entirely in a circa-1890 London drawing room during a 24-hour period, not the most cinematically inviting of locales. What better, thought screenwriter Howard Himelstein and director Mike Barker, who "didn't want to make an English drawing room comedy like something you would see on the BBC," than to move the whole business to Italy's Amalfi coast during the glamorous 1930s.

Unfortunately, like certain indigenous plants, the Wilde play has not survived the transplant in perfect health. Despite its talented cast, the result lacks Wilde's trademark bite; it's soft and middlebrow, even though he was anything but. "A Good Woman" has a brief opening scene in New York, where we meet the celebrated Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt), "a notorious Jezebel" whose prowess at seducing other women's husbands is about to cause her imminent departure from that great metropolis.

Scanning a magazine, Mrs. Erlynne hits on the idea of visiting Amalfi. "It attracts the rich and famous," she says to herself in one of the film's frequent and unfortunate fake-Wildean sallies, "and I'm infamous and poor. Close enough."

Already in Italy are Meg Windermere (Johansson) and her husband, Robert (Mark Umbers), young and in love in the most photogenic way. "A Good Woman" has made them naive Americans, in part for casting reasons, in part to make Meg easier prey for the seductive Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), the kind of smooth roue who says, "How can I seduce you if you always bring your husband?" Once Mrs. Erlynne arrives on the scene, she makes a connection with that very husband, and soon all of Amalfi is abuzz with the scandalous notion that she and Mr. Windermere are having an affair. But the truth is rarely what everyone says it is, especially where an Oscar Wilde plot is concerned.

Although transposing this story to photogenic Italy makes for the requisite number of scenic vistas, it also creates a number of problems for the story, starting with the fact that Wilde's concerns about the restrictive nature of society don't play as well outside the rigid confines of Victorian England.

Also sacrificed in this more naturalistic production is the brilliance of Wilde's artifice. The sharpness and crackling energy of his conception, frankly, makes a bad fit with the film's fitful and not particularly successful attempts to make these characters more well-rounded.

Not helping either are what feel like misconceived performances by two gifted actresses. Johansson, who can be quite involving in the right part, is artificial and unconvincing as a bubble-headed naif who spends much of her time pouting through sensual lips.

Although it is a treat to see Hunt in a theatrical film for the first time since Woody Allen's "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" of five years ago, she feels frankly miscast. Mrs. Erlynne must be believable as a hard femme du monde who cares only for herself, and Hunt, one of the most empathetic of actresses, simply does not do heartless very well.

The only actor who emerges from the production relatively unscathed is the veteran Wilkinson, who alone manages the combination of reality and Wilde the film is after. "A Good Woman" won't ruin anyone's day, but it won't make anyone's either, and it won't get the great Irish playwright anything like the admiration his work deserves.


`A Good Woman'

MPAA rating: PG for thematic material, sensuality and language.

A Lionsgate release. Director Mike Barker. Screenplay Howard Himelstein, based on Oscar Wilde's play "Lady Windermere's Fan." Producers Alan Greenspan, Jonathan English, Steven Siebert, Howard Himelstein, Mark Albela. Cinematographer Ben Seresin. Editor Neil Farrell. Production designer Ben Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At selected theaters.

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